As we turn the corner into March Madness, it is time to delve into the college sport that everyone is talking about…Football! The Penn State program is at a bit of a crossroads here and is transitioning to a new group of faces to lead the team into the future. Jimmy has been recruiting like there is no tomorrow, but those guys may not be ready to contribute right away, and there are a lot of starting positions that are up in the air today. Let’s break down a few of the biggest stories going into spring camp and what they could mean for the Fall.
Who is going to be the starting quarterback?
As Trace McSorley is pressured by NFL teams to change position, the state of the quarterback position is in a bit of disarray for Penn State. I might have a slightly more negative opinion of Tommy Stevens than most, but I do think we are in for an open quarterback battle. Tommy has been the quarterback in waiting for his whole career after initially losing the camp battle to Trace for the starting role in 2016. I think it is likely that he has been tepidly promised this position and may have transferred otherwise if this were not the case. He is a tall, athletic quarterback who has already played a role in this offense the last few years. He is certainly the betting favorite going into camp to take the job.
There are a few issues with penciling him in today, however. Stevens had surgery for an undisclosed injury around the end of 2018 and his status for spring camp is unknown at this point. He also threw one of the worst passes I have ever seen during last year’s Michigan game, and I cannot shake it from my mind. I don’t think he really looked good throwing the ball at all last season, but this may have been due to this mysterious injury.
On the other hand, Sean Clifford has been hot fire in garbage time. He has a great deep ball and has had some beautiful throws over the last year (watch the end of that Pitt game!). He will also be taking the starter reps in practice the first few weeks as Tommy recovers and could build momentum that Tommy cannot stop. Get ready for some juice in the blue white game.
Is there a bell cow running back this year?
For the past few years, the Nitts have relied heavily on primary backs in Miles Sanders last year and Saquan Barkley in the years prior. These backs have taken the majority of snaps out the backfield, while really only rotating out to be spelled for a few snaps. The situation is shaping out to be entirely different this year, with a running back by committee being the betting favorite.
Ricky Slade returns and was electric at times last year, but may be a little too slight to take carries as an early down back at this point in his career. He reminds me of the Dollar Tree version of Alvin Kamara with just enough pop to break some tackles and will excel in space. He needs to work on his ball security, but it will be fun to see if he can make a jump from last season. They do have a few highly rated freshman joining the roster as well in 4-star talents Noah Cain and Devyn Ford, who add a little Thunder and Lightning to the roster. They may be too young at this point to take the reins, but Noah will be in camp this spring and could push for the main role.
How good will this Front 7 be?
Now, this is the Penn State we know and love. This Front 7 is absolutely stacked, led by Yetur Gross-Matos and the tantalizing Micah Parsons. This unit is very young and may not put it all together this season, but should grow together as one of the more exciting defensive units that Penn State has had in the past decade or so.
Yetur Gross-Matos really came into his own last season and was an absolute terror off of the edge. There will be a battle for the spot opposite Matos, with the talented Shane Simmons and Shaka Toney (Awesome Name!) pushing for the starting role. Micah led the team in tackles as a true freshman and looked raw doing so. I can only pray that an offseason spent with the coaching staff will tighten up his very few weaknesses at this point.
Brandon Smith, their lone 5 star recruit this offseason, could push for a rotational role as well. Jan Johnson is also your classic not that athletic or rangy linebacker from the state of Pennsylvania who starts for 3 years and signs autographs in the town until he’s 80. I expect him to solidify the middle of that defense. We can only hope they gel here in the spring and that some of the other young guys step up in time for the fall.
Who will be the face of the team heading into the season?
The best way to recall my memories of each college football season is to remember the unique plays, moments, and quirks of the campaign. The biggest plays in the biggest games of the year are what always what put me back in those moments in time. Those plays are made by the signature players, and I believe that this is a 3 man race this year.
There is the quarterback who has patiently waited his turn to start, the rising sophomore linebacker with an offseason in a college lifting program, and the electric receiver and return man who has already been turning the tides of games at a moment’s notice. Tommy Stevens, Micah Parsons, KJ Hamler…. Whose time is it? Stories will start to materialize out of camp toting the next faces of the program and momentum will build for this new generation of Lions. The 2019 Penn State season starts now, and I’m excited to see if Franklin can pull it together and exceed expectations.